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April 8 Eclipse: Away from caution, a celebration of science

April 8 Eclipse: Away from caution, a celebration of science

On April 8, Quebec will be in the spotlight due to an unusual astronomical event: a total solar eclipse. A phenomenon of this magnitude, where the Moon slides between the Earth and the Sun, plunging several areas of Quebec into shadow for a few magical moments, deserves to be prepared and celebrated as befits its unique and astonishing character. However, authorities' management of the event appears to be oscillating between delay and overcautiousness, threatening the golden opportunity to make it a true celebration of science and learning for many Quebecers.

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Late and worrying message

The publication of the recommendations by the Quebec government a few weeks before the eclipse is a source of bewilderment to the educational and scientific communities. This late communication severely limits the time available for schools, kindergartens and other institutions to prepare for this major event.

Furthermore, placing this declaration under the banner “Emergencies, Disasters and Natural Hazards” on the government website disproportionately highlights the risks, which are in fact minimal.

Basic information and safety

The government's information page gives a correct description of the eclipse, outlining the dangers of unsafe viewing and emphasizing that projection views are better than direct viewing with eclipse glasses, which are nonetheless very safe. Additionally, it fails to insist on crucial points, such as verification of approval for eclipse glasses (which must meet several criteria of the ISO-12312-2:2015 standard to be safe) and gives confusing instructions on using these glasses during the entire eclipse. This partial or inaccurate information has already caused a lot of confusion among Quebecers, especially in school service centres.

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Limit educational recommendations

The Ministry of Education's orientations, which can be found following the document that essentially reproduces the content of the government website, are completely contradictory. On the one hand, we encourage people to avoid outdoor activities during the eclipse, and on the other hand, we encourage observing the phenomenon, especially with certified eclipse glasses. Although these recommendations are guided by concern for safety, they show a certain lack of confidence in the ability of teachers to supervise safe and educational observation of the eclipse, thus missing out on a valuable opportunity for live learning. Additionally, this deprives tens of thousands of young people of safe and supervised eclipse observation at school.

An unfortunate loss of confidence

The successful experience of the 2017 total eclipse in the United States, where a well-managed media campaign allowed hundreds of millions of people to observe the eclipse without major incident, contrasts sharply with the approach taken in Quebec. This also raises questions about the trust our leaders place in residents and education professionals to manage monitoring of this natural phenomenon in a responsible and safe manner.

The impact of late and troubling recommendations on educational initiatives

The government's late and worrying communications had direct repercussions on the educational initiatives enthusiastically prepared by education stakeholders. Field trips and outdoor activities, carefully planned by teachers from school service centers, were canceled at the last minute, depriving students of meaningful learning experiences about this unique astronomical event. These cancellations reflect the confusion and uncertainty caused by late government recommendations and the event's classification as an emergency.

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In addition, the laudable initiatives of several organizations, most notably Discover the Universe, which aims to provide teachers with specific training about eclipses and provide free observing glasses, are encountering unexpected obstacles. Many school service centers, despite efforts to ensure safe and educational observation of the eclipse, chose to suspend classes for the day. Even more troubling is that some have banned their employees from distributing the glasses provided to students, halting an initiative that could have greatly enriched the educational experience of youth in Quebec.

Towards reconciling precautions with educational opportunities

It is important to recognize the negative impact that these late and often alarming recommendations have on educational initiatives. Moving forward requires not only rethinking how we communicate the Guiding Principles, but also evaluating and supporting the efforts of teachers, educational institutions, and scientific organizations to enhance learning opportunities in a vibrant and memorable way.

Authorities must work closely with the educational community to ensure that necessary precautions do not overshadow the opportunities for scientific and cultural enrichment provided by such events. This requires clear communication, consistent guidelines and strong support for educational initiatives around the eclipse, thus ensuring that the April 8 event becomes a positive milestone in the history of science education in Quebec.

Conclusion: a call to action

The total solar eclipse on April 8 shouldn't just be synonymous with caution. It should also represent an opportunity to celebrate and learn. It is essential that the authorities review their communications and recommendations to highlight the stunning and educational nature of the eclipse. By working with teachers, scientists and the community, we can make this event a historic moment for science education in Quebec.

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Pierre Chastenay, astronomer, science communicator and full professor at UQAM

Camille Turcotte, Director General of the Association for the Teaching of Science and Technology of Quebec